Life of Jesus (1997)

Viewed April 27th

 

Provincial French teenagers struggle to find meaning in anything beyond sex and violence.

A film utterly tied to reality and yet so original in perspective that it feels alien, as well. These small-town teens with their ugly but compelling faces and their motorbikes would be unremarkable if they weren't prone to racially-motivated violence; their lives are hardly the lives of Jesus. And yet director Bruno Dumont frames and structures their actions so elegantly and so seemingly "objectively" that by the ending, with its mesmerizing sequence of images, a spiritual spell has been cast. And, with that spell comes a lingering mystery about what it all means and why the film has this intriguing title despite having almost nothing to do with Jesus, and whether or not these sinners are, in the end, redeemable. I'm not sure if there's an answer, or perhaps the answer lies in that very sense of mystery and unknowability.

It seems as if Life of Jesus unfolds organically, but there is, in fact, a sophisticated game being played. In the genre of austere, realistic European cinema, the filmmaker has to actually juggle quite a bit, despite the seeming simplicity. Every scene has to advance the narrative and to feel authentic--not only authentic, but illuminating about the world. If their voice or artistic affectations become louder than the world and the characters, the world of the film falters and we're cast outside of it. Intriguingly, one area where Dumont strays from the genre rules is in the odd humor that runs through everything and feels provocative in relation to some of the touchier aspects. Occasionally we enter a broader point of view about life in this town and we laugh at the characters. When that happens, the balance unsteadies, but, to Dumont's credit, the mystery remains.